Hugh Jackman in The Fountain
As Daniel and I sat watching Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain Saturday night, I was reminded of when I was ten years old (or close) and my uncle Ronnie took Jody and I (I think Jody was there) to see 2001: A Space Odessey. As we emerged into the light of that afternoon, I knew what I had just seen was pretty cool, but I had no idea what any of it meant. Watching The Fountain was just like that--what I was seeing was really cool, and the ultimate meaning seemed to be clear enough, but there were many points in between that I really had no clue about.
After reading Jeffrey Overstreet's astute review over at Christianity Today, I figured out I walked into the film with a flawed preconception, and it skewed my viewing, and such preconceptions will. I knew it was about the Tree of Life, and I knew it was about seeking to live eternally, and I knew it was three stories told over 1000 years. My error came in thinking that it was about a single character (actually, two), living 1000 years because of their discovery of the Tree of Life. Well, if you look at it like that, the narrative just doesn't hang together--there are far to many missing pieces to make sense of the images and juxtapositions as a coherent narrative. Overstreet sees three separate stories, linked by theme. It makes more sense that way, but still, there were connections made in the structure of the story that were confusing enough to derail my experience of the film.
The central concern of the film is the confrontation with death, and the desire for eternity. Aronofsky approaches his theme by juxtaposing three time periods, three different attempts to defeat death. The story at the heart of the film concerns a medical researcher's (Hugh Jackman) desire to save his wife (Rachel Weisz) from a cancerous tumor. The second story emerges from a novel the dying woman is writing, a novel that is set in 16th century Spain in which the Queen of Spain is locked in a battle with the church over her heretical search for a Tree of Life of Mayan myth. The third story follows the path of an "astronaut" (that[base ']s Overstreet's description) as he seeks to find a source of life in a distant, dying star. All three stories portray our desire for a victory over death, and in the end, each story demonstrates that life swallows up death, that death is a "path to awe", and that the route to eternity can only come through an acceptance of death, embracing it as a part of life's journey. The wife facing death does so with grace and acceptance, saying she is "no longer afraid."
The acting in the film was compelling all around, but really, it's all about Hugh. Jackman attacked the role with compelling ferocity, but then, if you're going to take on death, and fight it over 1000 years, you better bring your A-game. He did: it was an emotionally honest and wrenching performance, though there were a few moments when I could almost see him thinking, "I have to cry again?" But his range as an actor is on full display here, and his ability to play epic size sits easily alongside his contemporary presence. (He does a nice lotus position...ah, to be that flexible.)
Visually, The Fountain is pretty stunning. From the courts and towers of 16th century Spain to the outer reaches of space, the scenes are rendered beautifully, if without the kind of emotional force I was hoping for. (The Tree of Life and Jackman's vision of it was wonderful, as was his ecstasy over finding it, which made the ensuing turn of events--I won[base ']t spoil it for you--all the more shocking.) One of the more memorable images is also one of the more problematic: a head-shaven Jackman appearing in the lotus position, floating in a bubble, caused a bit of laughter the night we saw it.
Overstreet notes in his review that will all the talk about eternity, there is little talk of God. That struck me as well, mostly because of the Tree of Life's connection with Mayan myth vs. the biblical record. Regardless of how you feel about the literalness of Genesis, the connection of the Tree of Life with the Maker of Life is important--if there is a desire in the heart of humanity for eternity, it was either put there by Someone or it is a trick of biology and psychology, leaving us with the romantic notion that there is somehow a life that lasts forever even though life itself has appeared from the mixture of time and chance and nothing. We want forever, just as long as we don't have to go to God to learn anything of it.
Would I recommend it? As long as you go looking for something other than a narrative that hangs together, a sort of visual poetry maybe...sure. But I'd see it now, in the theatre--something tells me on the small screen, it won't have the same beauty.
That said, I'll probably like it better next time I see it...